We’ve done our fair share of traveling with little ones. Our oldest has been traveling since pretty much out of the womb. Really, he was just shy of a month old when we traveled cross country to Colorado for a family wedding. Since then we’ve flown all over the United States with him, from NY to Chicago to Texas. And then we added another baby to the mix and traveled all the way over to California, three times.
We’ve packed the car and road tripped all over Florida countless times and then ventured up north to the Carolinas. We’ve boarded a cruise ship six times with kids and made our way all over the waters to discover another corner of paradise. We’re collecting stamps in our passports from all over the world, including the latest additions of Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom.
So to say we have a knack for this is pretty accurate and very much a compliment. Our kids have enjoyed our wild adventures as much as we have, and though every trip hasn’t always been easy, every moment has been so very worth it.
If you’re toying with the idea of your own family vacation, here are some of my well-rounded and seasoned travel tips to save you sanity on your next adventure.
1. Expect the best. Daydream, daydream all you want! This is how you got you here! Imagine all you’re going to do & see and bring your kids into your excitement. Traveling with kids is not hard, just different than going at it solo. And the bonus is you get to live vicariously through your little people's eyes. Make plans to incorporate what you want to do, but find family friendly activities to partake in too! There really is no better way to get the vibe of a city than living like a local, and traveling with a child can slow you to that pace. There are plenty of options and travelers who share their experiences and are worth every bit of the read (even if you don’t do everything recommended).
2. Prepare for the worst. Because, let’s be honest, you’re traveling, anything could happen. One of our trips to Colorado, we all picked up the stomach flu, so with some well sought advice from a nurse friend we got ourselves back to health via allergy medicine before boarding a plane. Our latest trip overseas, I heeded that same advice and stocked up extra on the medicine cabinet. And what a blessing in disguise it was - the dreaded stomach bug hit us again! But this time, we were prepared; and there’s nothing more relieving than having the right stuff on hand, especially when you’re far from home. Make a list of all the things that could ever need and just bring what you don’t think you can easily access, just in case. And yes, you can’t prepare for everything but do what you can and it will make all the difference in the world.
3. Bring them into the planning process. There’s nothing more exciting than going on an adventure for everyone! If you talk to your kids about what you plan to see and do and consider their perspective, the whole trip will run a little more smoothly. And not for them, but for you. Sometimes sightseeing is a little too much, so the opportunity to stop and literally smell the roses is just what vacation called for. Some of our favorite memories on our recent Europe trip were finding carousels in the cities we visited and getting to ride them. Carousels are just a luxury of Disney back home, so to be able to get on one in the middle of a city, in the prime of their childhood when this means everything, meant everything in the world to us.
4. Travel schedules are everything. Planning accordingly is very important, especially in considering sleep schedules, meal times and time adjustments. If you want rested kids, book a trip around a time that they normally nap or sleep, so that a long trip won’t get the best of them or you. Our first plane trip to the west coast a family of four, we opted to take a layover in LA during lunch on our way to San Francisco. It was our lunch time, so yes, a little comical to be eating burgers a little past 10am at the airport. But once we got to San Fran, the kids were fed, well rested and that made for an easy transition to west coast time.
5. Allow them each their own bag. Regardless of what kind of trip it is, allow them a carry-on bag of their own. Fill it with activities (more on that in a bit), a change of clothes, snacks, and toiletries of toothbrush, paste, comb, shampoo (always a must in an accessible bag). Yes, an extra bag seems tedious when needing to carry it, but when it’s time to restock and you can inventory exactly who is missing what, it saves you the burden of looking for through your stuff. It also teaches your little people responsibility to make sure they’re taking care of their things, and there’s nothing more satisfying than having their own things!
6. Snacks save you sanity. Hand in hand with having their own bag, bring a few snacks they love to fill that bag. Airplane food is tough, even most adults don’t love what they serve, so make sure that you pack snacks and treats they can grab when munching sets in. TSA will allow you through with mostly anything, except liquids and gels (unless traveling with babies, toddlers, and kids with dietary restrictions). Rules always vary at each airport, so I'd double check at your departure airport before stocking up.
Same snack rules go for a car trip; make a special grocery trip before hitting the road to just fill a cooler with items to munch while on the open road. You may find that once you're cruising you won't always have a store readily available. And when pulling over at a gas station, your snack options are drastically limited in selection and strikingly doubled in cost.
Whatever you do, make sure to pack an extra "emergency" stash in your bag, in case the layover goes a little longer, or they decide to go through a growth spurt on the first day of your trip. If you pack the one thing that brings them joy, it can be the thing that saves the trip. Make sure they pick it out and allow them to bring something reasonable yet remarkable to them.
7. Activities to engage and activities to distract. We tend to head to the Dollar Store or Bullseye’s Playground at Target prior to a trip and pick up a few random activities to introduce while traveling. Coloring pages and activity books are always a huge hit because they're never ending. A good set of over the ear headphones are perfect for personal TVs, whether in the car or on the plane (a must). Then a few games to play as a family keep kids delighted on any trip. If you have the option of downloading a few movies on a tablet, do it and bring it. Particularly after arrival when waiting or commuting can get to be long, this is the time to allow them to unwind while they practice patience.
Our biggest successes on our last trips were were scavenger hunts for the cities we visited, reward calendars for excellent behavior days, and an old iPhone to serve as a camera (and app holder) to document (or distract) on the trip.
8. Comfort is key. When booking where to stay or what to do, look for what’s going to best suit YOU. For us, we prefer to stay in hotels, choose to hotel hop to stay in proximity of what we’re doing (we hate wasted drives) and find hotels that serve breakfast.
Our kids wake up hungry, so having to find a breakfast place to open can be daunting. Since going on a breakfast hunt every morning isn't something we want to be forced to do, we try to book hotels that have it on-site (and for free is an added perk)! And when we don’t find a place that fits our need, we look for a place near great breakfast spots to try out! If all else fails, we make sure wherever we stay is in close proximity to a store to stock up OR we make a stop along the way to have what we need in the mini-fridge without paying hotel prices. Figure out what your comfort point is and plan for that!
9. Embrace the chaos. Things aren’t always going to go as planned and that’s okay. Sometimes the best memories come from the plans you didn’t make. We’ve had plenty of these moments on trips where we meant to do one thing and then went for another. And then plan B turned to be better than plan A. Perspective makes a difference when traveling, there’s elements that you’re not going to be able to control – other people, the weather, schedules, delays – but you can control your mindset. So, if you choose to stay positive even when you feel like you’re going to positivity loss it, you’ll see how the road less traveled became the right journey for you!
10. Build everlasting memories. This is why you’re here, isn’t it? Regardless of what happens, make it a point to make this the best trip ever. Whether it’s your first trip or your 50th, this is going to be the last time you can do it exactly like this. In a few weeks’, months’, years’ time, your kids will be older, your activities will change, your memories will vary. So, make the best of this very moment, it’s the whole reason you’re here. To have these memories that will last a lifetime.
Trust me, traveling with kids, it’s worth it. It may take a few times to feel like you got it right, but I promise you when I say this, you’re never going to do it wrong in their eyes.